CUT BACK HELLEBORE LEAVES
The Lenten Rose, helleborus orientalis is putting up new shoots now. However the old foliage is still looking very healthy and robust. But it can be hard to appreciate the flowers if they are smothered or even partially obscured by these leaves left over from last year. So I always make a pass of my hellebores just before Christmas, cutting off all leaves that are marked with chocolate splodges, which is a sign of hellebore leaf spot to reduce its spread. I also cut off any leaves have fallen back past 45 degrees, removing them right at the base of the plant. This lets in light and air to the emerging flower shoots which will appear before the new foliage. Hellebore leaves are very leathery and slow to compost so I burn them – and especially so for any affected with leaf spot.
I repeat this process in about a month’s time, removing all remaining old foliage so that the flowers can be fully enjoyed in all their February glory.
Whatever type of Christmas tree you choose, place it in moist soil, sand or a bucket of water, even if it does not have roots as the cut stem will still take up moisture rather as a cut flower does in a vase. These trees have evolved to be cold in winter so to delay the shedding of needles place it somewhere as cool as possible and never next to a radiator.
If you do buy a Christmas tree with roots intending to plant it outside in the new year, it is doubly important to keep it moist and cool. If the needles start to drop, take it outside and leave it there, otherwise it will never recover in the garden.
And when choosing a position for it bear in mind that what you have dressed inside your house is a tiny baby. Norway Spruces are over 200ft tall when fully grown and are Europe’s tallest native tree. Nordman Firs (which come from the Caucasus mountains by the Black Sea) will grow even bigger. Both trees prefer rather acidic, moist conditions so if you are gardening on chalk or limestone I would not bother to attempt to grow them outside. They will never be happy. Better to treat them like a bunch of flowers: enjoy it, keep it watered and then recycle, whether by shredding yourself or taking it to the council to recycle.
BIRDS IN YOUR GARDEN
Try and be as regular as possible with the supply, especially in very cold weather, as the birds use up precious energy in coming to your bird table which is then wasted if it is bare.
Obviously it helps for the food to be as calorific as possible and seeds, nuts and fat are best of all. Left-over pastry, bread and rice always get eaten fast and fruit is good, especially for blackbirds and thrushes. Grated cheese is popular as well as cooked (but not raw) potatoes. Avoid anything salty such as crisps, salted peanuts or bacon. I buy dried mealworms too which robins, tits and wrens gobble up greedily.
It is especially important to put out water in a shallow saucer or dish and to refresh it daily and defrost it at least twice a day in cold weather.
It is good to provide a means of smaller birds like tits getting at food before it is all eaten by starlings or pigeons and to put your bird table well out of reach of cats. A hanging cage filled with nuts or seeds works well; I like to spread the food around in a number of different sites including on ledges too small for larger birds and to have a weathered log which I pour seeds into the fissures and cracks that the small birds can reach.
Place your feeding table or station outside a window where you can enjoy the display with a bird book handy to identify the inevitable visitors that you will not recognise and celebrate the fact that they are part of the rich diversity of your garden.
Hardwood cuttings are slow to make roots but need no protection at all and a very good way of making new shrubs for free – especially from fruit bushes and roses. Cut a 12-24 inch length of straight stem the thickness of a pencil of this year’s growth, and divide it into lengths between 6 & 12 inches long, cutting straight across the bottom and at an angle at the top so you remember which way up to plant it. Strip any remaining leaves from it so you have bare, straight stems and either place the cuttings so only one third is above soil level in a deep pot filled with very gritty compost (4 or 5 can fit into each pot) or outside in a narrow trench backfilled with sand to ensure good drainage. Leave them until next autumn when a good percentage will have made sturdy young plants ready for potting up or planting straight out.
WASHING SLIPPERY PATHS
At this time of year brick and stone paths can be very slippery and dangerous. This is due to algae that grows on the surface, especially if wet and shaded and at this time of year they may stay wet and slippery for months. The best way to reduce the slipperyness is to wash off the algae with a pressure hose (which can be hired by the day). When this is done brush in sharpsand. If the path is brick or stone the porous surface will absorb some of the sand. A quicker -but still quite laborious – alternative is simply to work sand in with a stiff brush without the washing. Either way you have a very effective way of making a path safe without resorting to chemicals.